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Booster shots: Our next defense against COVID-19?

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Updated August 18, 2021, to reflect CDC recommendations that everyone who received the full two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine receive a third dose, and the timeframe for this booster dose. Please note that this page is accurate as of the update date. 

A booster shot refers to an additional dose of a vaccine that is necessary to maintain protection against a specific disease. For many diseases, booster shots are not required once the primary vaccine series is completed. But for others, boosters may be necessary. How frequently booster shots are needed depends on the specific disease and vaccine involved. Some vaccines keep you primed indefinitely. Others weaken over time.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is now recommending a booster shot for all people who received the full two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Although these vaccines continue to offer tremendous protection against severe COVID-19 and death, studies show that the strength of these vaccines does decline over time.

Here, VCU Health infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Stevens discusses the CDC recommendations and how booster shots can help us in our fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Michael StevensWhy would I need a booster shot for COVID-19?

It is not clear at this point how long the currently available COVID-19 vaccines will protect you. What we do know is that the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines does appear to decline over time.

For individuals who received the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, a booster shot will help re-prime an immune system that has lost some of its punch due to a decline in vaccine effectiveness.

Does this mean my vaccination is no longer protecting me?

Not at all. We know that the available COVID-19 vaccines are wildly effective at preventing severe illness and death in people with healthy immune systems. However, in very rare cases, some people who were vaccinated still got infected. Most developed only mild symptoms, if any at all. New data show vaccine effectiveness does wane over time, and there are concerns that eight months or more after completing the vaccine series, people may be at higher risk for infection.

The CDC is now recommending a booster shot for everyone who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine because of how contagious the virus is and how vaccine effectiveness appears to decline over time.

How can I get the booster shot?

For immunocompetent people, that is, people with a healthy immune system, the CDC expects health care providers to begin offering booster shots this fall, subject to input from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

Booster shots could begin as early as the week of September 20 for individuals who received the second dose of the vaccine at least eight months prior. Individuals who were fully vaccinated earliest in the vaccination rollout, such as health care providers, nursing home residents and other seniors, will likely be eligible for the booster first.

People who have significant immunocompomising conditions who received the Pfizer or Moderna  COVID-19 vaccine series are eligible for a third dose now — as long as it has been at least 28 days since completion of their vaccine series. Additional information can be found at this CDC site: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/immuno.html.

What if I received the J&J vaccine?

At this time, the CDC has not released specific guidance regarding boosters for people who received the J&J vaccine. We expect additional recommendations to come from the CDC in the next few weeks.

For more information

Continue to watch for updated guidance from the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health. Also check our vaccine website. For a variety of news and information on COVID-19 and how VCU Health is keeping patients safe, please visit our COVID-19 News Center

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